Yes, democracy is still the best system, and it will survive.
If we work at it.
Even before Donald Trump’s election, democracy was in crisis.
Russia and China, each with its own version of a corrupt one-party state, were ascendant. Nations that had been democracies, from Turkey to Thailand to Venezuela, were increasingly autocratic – often under leaders who came to power democratically.
The world’s surviving democracies were wringing their hands as hundreds of thousands of children, women and men faced bombing or starvation in Aleppo, Syria – an abject end to an American presidency that introduced itself to the world at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate more than eight years ago with a vow to “never forget our common humanity.”
And then, Donald Trump.
His victory is a challenge to democracy because he chose to make it so, not because he is a Republican, or a conservative or a Washington outsider. Trump’s campaign often displayed contempt for democratic norms, by trading in lies and conspiracy theories, celebrating violence, disdaining a free press, deriding minorities and minority rights and threatening to wield the powers of government against political enemies.
During the campaign, Trump spoke admiringly of dictators and dismissively of democratic allies. Echoing the propaganda of the Russian state that helped elect him, Trump himself talked democracy down: The system was rigged, politicians were for sale.
“The basic argument that China and Russia make is not that their system is better, but that we are the same – just as corrupt, sordid and undemocratic,” says Tom Malinowski, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. Trump essentially endorsed that view.
So his victory presents a challenge.
But it is far from a final verdict.
First, we do not know, and should not assume, that the worst tendencies of the campaign will find expression in a Trump presidency.
That is why Hillary Clinton was right to graciously concede, though Trump might not have done the same. It is why President Barack Obama was right to offer a transition with utmost respect and optimism, though he has been criticized as naive.
It is why the media should hold Trump accountable for actions and statements going forward, not pre-judge, and why Democrats are right to remain open to the possibility of cooperation.
If Trump, after waging an ugly and divisive campaign, remains within the bounds of democratic behavior, that in itself will be a kind of vindication for the system.
And if his administration strays beyond those bounds, democracy will have to defend itself. Congress, the courts, the civil service, the media, civic institutions – ultimately, the citizenry itself – will have something to say about it.
Last week, a young democracy activist from Hong Kong, Joshua Wong, was in Washington seeking support in Congress and elsewhere. His message was applicable to more than his own city-state on the other side of the world.
For several years, Communist leaders in Beijing have been nibbling away at their promise to allow Hong Kong to maintain its liberty. Book publishers who offended China’s rulers have been kidnapped from Hong Kong and elsewhere to be imprisoned in mainland China. Press freedoms have eroded. Recently the party intervened to bar two pro-democracy politicians from taking their seats on Hong Kong’s legislative council.
Wong, 20, a third-year university student, leads a movement to resist these encroachments, at times helping to bring tens of thousands of compatriots into the street to protest for democracy.
“I realize it’s a long-term battle to fight the largest Communist Party regime in the world,” Wong told us. “But even if we don’t achieve immediate results in our short-term battles, we will continue fighting to create a miracle.”
Recently, when the China-friendly autocrats of Thailand detained Wong in the Bangkok airport to keep him from delivering a speech in their country, a statement of protest was issued by a small organization that had formed only a few months earlier – the Network of Young Democratic Asians. With activists from Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam, the network seemed to be anticipating a moment when democrats will have to come to each other’s aid, perhaps – at least for a time – without support from the government that has long styled itself the leader of the free world.
Visiting Washington, Wong helped remind us of a few things we’ve always known: that democracies are fragile, that the fight for freedom is never finished, that regimes in power will do almost anything to stay in power.
But also this: that human beings in every culture and every nation share a desire for dignity and self-determination. That’s true in Burma, and South Africa, and Cuba – and the United States.
Fred Hiatt is the editorial page editor of The Post. He writes editorials for the newspaper and a biweekly column that appears on Mondays. He also contributes to the PostPartisan blog.